Hurt people hurt people.
That’s the concise message I came away with from “Greenberg,” the latest from writer-director Noah Baumbach (“The Squid & The Whale”).
If you think about it for half a minute it makes sense. People who have been wounded by other people often lash out, intentionally or unintentionally, and sometimes against those they love the most.
Ben Stiller is Roger Greenberg, a truly screwed-up individual. Greenberg has had some kind of nervous breakdown, and he has just been released from an institution.
Greenberg grew up in Los Angeles and was once on the verge of signing a recording contract with his musical group, Magic Marker.
At the last minute Greenberg decided the deal wasn’t good enough and he walked away from his mates, effectively killing the group. He moved to New York City, gave up his car, and became a simple carpenter.
Greenberg has a wealthy brother Phillip (Chris Messina) who still lives in Los Angeles. When Phillip decides to take his family on a Vietnam vacation, he asks Roger to housesit and take care of the family dog, Mahler.
Greenberg can barely take care of himself, let alone a large house and a dog, but that’s where the funny stuff comes in. Like Woody Allen in “Annie Hall” Greenberg is completely unsuited for life in LA and virtually helpless, but still he complains and complains- about everything- and writes angry letters to the editor.
But Greenberg meets Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig), the lovely 25-year-old personal assistant to his brother. Flo is wounded too. She has just ended a long relationship and had an unsatisfactory encounter with a stranger at a party.
Despite an age difference of 16 years, Flo is drawn to Greenberg and him to her.
So begins a tentative, almost-romance. Hurt people hurt people, remember? Both Greenberg and Flo are too troubled to fully trust each other or get beyond their personal hang-ups.
“Greenberg” is neither a comedy nor a drama, and it is downright uncomfortable at times.
Still, Ben Stiller, graying at the temples, delivers the most fascinating performance of his career. We should dislike annoying, compulsive Roger Greenberg, but he is too sympathetic to abandon. When he is behaving very badly, we feel the pain beneath his foolishness.
Greta Gerwig is not a conventionally beautiful woman, but she can be quite striking when she is singing (Flo does the open mic circuit) and heartbreaking when she is being mistreated and suffering the consequences of her bad choices.
Rhys Ifans is equally fascinating as Greenberg’s stoic best buddy and former writing partner, Ivan. If anyone has a right to be angry it should be Ivan, yet he keeps it restrained until a masterful scene when he finally speaks his mind.
“Greenberg” is co-written by actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also co-produces (she’s married to Baumbach) and plays the small but key role of Greenberg’s pitying ex-girlfriend, Beth.
”Greenberg” examines both sides of the male-female romantic conundrum. Rather than finding it dark or bleak like Baumbach’s previous, “Margot’s Wedding,” I find it oddly optimistic in its hint that even the most broken people can find second chances.